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New Hanukkah Books Take Kids Places

Review of Harvest of Light by Alison Ofanansky (Kar-Ben, 2009), Menorah Under the Sea by Esther Susan Heller, (Kar-Ben, 2009), Hanukkah Moon by Deborah Da Costa (Kar-Ben, 2009), Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig by Anna Levine (Kar-Ben, 2008) and Hanukkah Around the World by Tami Lehman-Wilzig, illustrated by Vicki Wehrman (Kar-Ben, 2009).

Truth be told, I have had my fill of the usual Hanukkah picture books, most often stories of a generically contemporary yet vaguely “old-country” family enjoying the holiday, each traditional item or custom highlighted and explained. Sometimes a popular children’s book character suddenly acquires Jewish friends and they all celebrate together, each traditional item or custom again highlighted and explained. I remember these books from my childhood and I read them to my daughters now. So it was with happy surprise that I opened an envelope of recent books from Kar-Ben Publishing to find five new Hanukkah titles so varied and diverse I could hardly believe our good reading fortune.

My 4-year-old daughter Ada immediately began to flip through them and just as immediately thereafter declared, “These are all great!” Still, since she’s younger than the target age for most of these, and because I like to think my education and experience should count for something, I decided to read the books through a few times myself. I have come to the same conclusion: These are, indeed, all pretty great, though likely of varying interest to interfaith families.

Harvest of Light (recommended for ages 3-8) was one of the favorites in my house, not only because my 4-year-old fits into its intended age range, but because it’s about olives, and Ada could probably eat her weight in olives. Written by Allison Ofanansky, Harvest of Light tells the story of a sweet-faced young Israeli girl of about 7 or 8 who assists her parents with their olive harvest. Eliyahu Alpern shot the photographs that accompany the text, and they are beautiful, vivid and aid enormously in allowing the reader to feel like he or she is right there in Israel, pressing olives into oil. Harvest of Light concludes with the olive oil being used to light the holiday menorah, a connection both perfect and unusual between the Maccabees of long ago and kids today.

Even more unusual but just as engaging is Menorah Under the Sea (ages 5-9), the true story of marine ecologist David W. Ginsburg and how he celebrates Hanukkah in, of all places, Antarctica. This book, written by Esther Susan Heller and illustrated with both stock photos and Ginsburg’s personal photos, will easily feed the imaginations of children, especially those with a curiosity for science and adventure. When Ginsburg goes diving on the day before the first night of Hanukkah, he creates the title’s menorah under the sea, using sea urchins and jelly fish to “light” a truly unforgettable Hanukkiah (which he photographs with his cool underwater camera!). What I found most remarkable about Menorah Under the Sea is that Jewish observance is portrayed not as an “other” while the rest of the world is busy with Christmas, but as one aspect of a multifaceted life. Young readers learn about both the shamash candle and the deep-sea animals at the bottom of the world. And, better yet, Ada can now locate Antarctica on a map!

Hanukkah Moon (ages 6-10) stars young Isobel, who celebrates the new moon with her Aunt Luisa, just arrived to Israel from Mexico. Aunt Luisa, a photographer and university professor to hip female students who come over to celebrate Rosh Hodesh, is the kind of aunt every kid wants to have, and Isobel experiences an unforgettable holiday. Written by Deborah da Costa and illustrated with a dreamy but warm style by Gosia Mosz, Hanukkah Moon introduces young readers to a Hanukkah with different traditions than they might be used to, and to characters with different faces and words than typically represented; it is par for the course for kids raised on Dora the Explorer to appreciate Aunt Luisa’s “Feliz Januca” sign, and it is wonderful to read Jewish literature that has caught up with the times in this way. Interfaith families may be especially grateful for the inclusion. The pace of the story sometimes drags, but it’s worth a look this time of year, if merely for its diversity of subject.

Another book that takes place in contemporary Israel, Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig (ages 5-9), follows young Jodie as she accompanies her father on an archaeological excavation to where Judah Maccabee fought against the Syrians. Jodie hopes to become an archaeologist one day and, as written by Anna Levine, she is an endearing and quick-thinking girl who ultimately saves the day with her resourcefulness. Ksenia Topaz’s detailed watercolors illuminate the life of a girl in modern-day Israel and spark the interest of any kid who has ever wanted to hunt for remnants of ancient times. The story itself doesn’t exactly break new ground, but that Hanukkah is a mere afterthought–Jodie and her father are heading home to light the holiday candles at the end of the book–is a welcome change from books more determined to teach than entertain. Jodie’s Hanukkah Dig holds no special pull for interfaith families, but it is an enjoyable, clever addition to children’s Hanukkah literature.

Especially welcome for interfaith families, however, is Hanukkah Around the World (ages 8-11). Written by Tami Lehman-Wilzig in the same format as her Passover Around the World, this delightful book travels near and far to explore varied and rich holiday traditions. With colorful maps and other illustrations by Vicki Wehrman to guide them, readers will visit Israel and New York City, Turkey and Uzbekistan, and even Tunisia, where today the Jewish community only numbers about 1,500. A fictional story about local children accompanies each location, as well as a recipe for a local holiday treat, personalizing cultures that might otherwise seem unfamiliar and inspiring new ideas that could be incorporated into already existing Hanukkah traditions. I know my daughters would be thrilled with the addition of a piñata (from the Mexican tradition) or a bonfire (from Morocco, although I’m fairly certain bonfires go against our lease agreement). While interfaith families aren’t specifically mentioned in Hanukkah Around the World, the notion that Jews can be found all across the globe, and in a variety of languages and colors, is sure to be one that will nourish the spirit of interfaith children and their families at Hanukkah and throughout the year.


Lynn Melnick

Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.


Author: Lynn Melnick